Rikers Strike Against Horrendous Conditions Draws Political Support

    Elected officials are rallying outside of the Rikers Island Detention Complex on January 13 to support detainees who are rejecting food from the facility in protest of their incarceration conditions.

    New York City Councilmembers Shekar Krishnan and Carmen De La Rosa, as well as advocates and members of the Fortune Society, are participating in the rally.

    As many as 200 detainees within the Rikers Island Detention Complex have announced a hunger strike to protest the conditions of their detention, Christopher Boyle, the director of data research and policy for the New York County Defender Services, told Filter. The strike began on January 7, he said.

    “At some point, you hit a breaking point” he said, noting that the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC), the Rikers facility where detainees are protesting, has been described to him as an add-on space that’s not well heated.

    “It’s cold right now. And you’re cold. And the water’s cold when you try to take a shower. And there’s black mold in the shower and the food is terrible, and you’re not getting [recreation] time, and you can’t get out, people are fighting and nobody’s stopping the fights because there’s no officers on the floor. Eventually you gotta do something.”

    In phone calls to Boyle, detainees have said they’re not getting mail and are missing medical and psychiatric appointments because guards are not present to take them, leaving those detained in lockdown.

    “The unfolding hunger strike is another example of why the humanitarian crisis at Rikers must be addressed immediately.”

    At the same time, COVID cases have recently surged in the facility. The Correctional Health Services Report from Tuesday said that 323 people detained on Rikers have tested positive for COVID. (The reported positivity rate is down significantly from a week ago). Only 45.2 percent of people held on the island have received their first vaccination dose. More than 82 percent of the people detained on Rikers on January 12 were being held before receiving a trial.

    “The unfolding hunger strike at the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC), one of eight jails on Rikers Island, is another example of why the humanitarian crisis at Rikers must be addressed immediately,” JoAnne Page, president and CEO of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit providing services to formerly incarcerated people, said in a press release before the rally.

    “While the surge in COVID-19 cases among people detained at Rikers may require certain measures to protect the health of staff and other detained people, timely access to medical care, regular recreation, and contact with defense attorneys and loved ones must never be denied.”

    A Department of Corrections spokesperson denied that a hunger strike is taking place.

    “There is no hunger strike,” the spokesperson told Filter in an emailed statement. “A group of detainees were refusing institutional food and instead eating commissary food. The warden is engaged with them and addressing their concerns, and our employees have been working tirelessly to keep all who work and live in our facilities safe.”


    Ongoing Failures to Address a Longstanding Crisis

    Yet the detainees’ attempt to draw attention to their conditions is just the latest effort to highlight the dilapidation of the troubled jail complex, which has remained in disarray despite years of federal oversight by a court-appointed monitor. Fifteen detainees died at Rikers last year.

    In September, a report found that skyrocketing levels of self-harm had occurred in the facility since the pandemic started. Days later, lawmakers visited the complex and described the conditions there as a humanitarian crisis. Touring the intake area, they found fecal matter on the floor, shower stalls used as cells and garbage scattered. A detainee attempted suicide in front of the legislators. One assemblymember called Rikers “horror island” and said that the conditions faced by those held were “just short of a concentration camp.”

    Yet the city has taken few steps to remedy the crisis. At a City Council hearing in September, the former first deputy mayor sought to place responsibility on the state, calling for the governor to sign the Less Is More Act. (Governor Kathy Hochul did sign the legislation, which stopped people from being held in jail while awaiting trial for technical parole violations, just two days later.)

    At the same Council hearing, the Department of Corrections commissioner pushed to limit staff absences, arguing that solving rampant officer absence could ensure better control of the detention facility.

    Yet high rates of absence have continued. At a Board of Corrections meeting on January 11, officials said that 2,317 staff were out sick.

    News reports have helped cast light on the dysfunction on the island. The New York Times has reported that detainees have taken “near total control” over units. On January 12, the Times released footage showing detainees watching a fight between two men, which a gang leader had reportedly orchestrated for his own entertainment.

    “Our clients in custody are beginning this year with fear, anxiety and ongoing denial of their basic human rights.”

    And while the de Blasio administration’s steps to improve the conditions on Rikers were limited, new Mayor Eric Adams’ DOC Commissioner Louis Molina rolled back changes to sick leave policy implemented under de Blasio, which had made it harder for officers to miss work. Molina also removed a respected head of investigations, who processed 8,800 internal probes in the last year.

    In December, the federal monitor overseeing Rikers said that conditions on the island have deteriorated.

    “Despite six years of striving to implement the required practices, the Department’s efforts have been unsuccessful in remediating the serious problems that gave rise to the Consent Judgment. Instead, conditions have progressively and substantially worsened,” the monitor’s 12th report said.

    At the January 11 Board of Corrections meeting, attorneys described continuing chaos. “Our clients in custody are beginning this year with fear, anxiety and ongoing denial of their basic human rights,” said Julia Solomons, a social worker with the Bronx Defenders.

    Emailed by Filter to ask what Mayor Adams was doing to fix the dysfunction on Rikers, a spokesperson for his office responded, “Please contact Dept. of Corrections.”

    “By far the most important step we can take is decarceration.”

    Progressive lawmakers have continued calling for decarceration—a step de Blasio did not pursue on a large scale, despite public pressure.

    “By far the most important step we can take is decarceration, premised on community supports, care resources, and economic rights so that those released can lead fulfilling lives,” Councilmember Tiffany Cabán said in a text statement to Filter.

    “The mayor has the power to release some of the census, and to address the fact that the commissioner recently fired the oversight officer, the council and mayor have the power to reduce violence by ending solitary confinement, and we all can do more to urge DAs to stop sending people to Rikers.”

    Cabán also called for the City Council to pass a bill banning solitary confinement, which its previous speaker, Corey Johnson, did not allow to come to a vote. DOC Commissioner Molina said on January 11 that replacing solitary confinement with a new disciplinary system—which was supposed to be implemented in the fall—is a “top priority.” But new Mayor Eric Adams has expressed support for keeping solitary in place.

    “Our neighbors are resorting to a hunger strike in order to demand their basic dignity. We stand with them in their demands.”

    “From physical violence to the denial of services as basic as mental and medical care, recreation, mail, a law library and more, our city is not only failing those held on Rikers, it is risking their very lives,” Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani said in an email statement to Filter. “Our neighbors held inside are resorting to a hunger strike in order to demand their basic dignity. We stand with them in their demands, and call on everyone who can reduce the jail population—judges, DAs, the mayor, the governor—to do so immediately.”

    Boyle said the only means to remedy the situation would be for an organization outside the pressures of New York City politics to step in.

    “Nothing will be changed unless the federal monitor comes in. The Nunez agreement allows for that,” he said, referencing a consent decree that stems from a lawsuit brought against the DOC alleging unnecessary force in city jails. “It’s just they haven’t pulled the trigger. The federal government needs to come in and take control over Rikers, period. That’s the only thing that’ll change anything.”



    Photograph by Doc Searls via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Daniel is a freelance reporter whose work has been published in outlets including Fortune, The Appeal and Gothamist. He will FOIA documents related to criminal justice if you ask nicely. He lives in Brooklyn.

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